A safe harbour for troubled boys

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It almost makes you want to misbehave. Safe Harbor Boys Academy in Jacksonville, Florida is a pioneer in what can only be described as “maritime rehabilitation”. Sitting on one acre of land, this small marina lies directly behind Blount Island on the St John’s River, nine nautical miles from the Atlantic Ocean.

The academy was founded accidentally 34 years ago, when a judge asked mental health counsellor Robbie Smith and her husband, Doug – a licensed clinical pastoral counsellor, ordained minister and friend of the judge – to care for a troubled boy on their large sailboat. For the boy, it was that or a stint in a juvenile hall. The Smiths were retired and about to embark on a round-the-world trip on their boat, but the judge wouldn’t take no for an answer. The weekend was a tremendous success and triggered more pleas from the judge for the Smiths to help more boys. A non-profit programme was launched and formalised in 1984 and Safe Harbor is now an established boarding school drawing on maritime principles as a therapeutic model. This extraordinary story became the subject of a 2009 television film starring Treat Williams and Nancy Travis.

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